Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Andrew Bacevich on "An End to Empire"

Andrew Bacevich writes on An End to Empire in The American Conservative 09/07/2011. He refers to the post-1989 triumphalism that came to dominate the thinking of both Democratic and Republican Parties, though with different understandings in each of them:

In Washington, such expectations qualified as advanced thinking, finding expression in the expansive claims that became a hallmark of the 1990s. "We stand tall. We see further into the future." Thus did Madeleine Albright elaborate on the attributes accruing to the world's "indispensable nation." Meanwhile, her boss Bill Clinton was wagging his finger at China. Beijing needed to align itself with the "right side of history," the president counseled, which meant that the Chinese should take their cues from America.

Expanding on or embroidering these themes got your books on bestseller lists, your columns in all the best newspapers, and your smiling face on the Sunday talk shows. My favorite artifact of this era remains the New York Times Magazine dated March 28, 1999. The cover story excerpted The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Tom Friedman’s just-released paean to globalization-as-Americanization. The cover itself purported to illustrate "What the World Needs Now." Alongside a photograph of a clenched fist adorned with the Stars and Stripes in brilliant red, white, and blue appeared this text: "For globalism to work, America can't be afraid to act like the almighty superpower that it is."
I've been reading some of the German literary critic Walter Benjamin's work lately. And Bacevich's invocation of that particular image reminds me of the way Benjamin used physical images that were identified with a particular moment in history to not just illustrate the point but to symbolize it in a meaningful way.

And that was undoubtedly a moment of arrogance and delusion on the part of American leaders. Both problematic features of thinking on the part of our political elites would get considerably worse:

Remarkably, the events of September 11, 2001 served not to overturn such thinking, but to affirm it. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld did not disagree with the claims of American prescience and prerogatives expressed by Clinton and Albright. Sharing in the view that the United States was indeed an almighty superpower, they merely wanted to assert that power more aggressively. After 9/11, they had little difficulty converting George W. Bush — hitherto proponent of a humble foreign policy — to their view. If the results achieved from winning the Cold War had turned out to be less conclusive than first thought, then surely one more big push would deliver history to its intended destination. So the ideologues in power, now Republicans rather than Democrats, and those cheering from the sidelines, neoconservative voices now ascendant, determined to pull out all the stops. As Richard Perle and David Frum, co-authors of the agitprop classic An End to Evil, put it, "There is no middle way for Americans: It is victory or holocaust." ...

The years 1991 and 2001 are commonly treated as breakpoints, markers that inaugurate distinctive chapters of history, the first labeled "Post-Cold War," the second "Post-9/11." Yet there is a strong case to be made for amalgamating the two decades into a single period: call it the "era of ideological fantasy," when U.S. self-regard and Washington's confidence in its ability to remake the world in America's image reached unprecedented heights.
Bacevich lists eight different assumptions about American power that have been shown to be deeply flawed in the last 20 years. He seems to be optimistic that American policymakers and the public will draw appropriate conclusions from those lessons.

Bacevich takes Reinhold Niebuhr's cautious evaluation of human judgment seriously. So I'm sure he expects more folly in foreign policy for some time to come.

But one way in which he's overly optimistic is in his conventional assumption that the current budget deficit are a serious problem for the US. "Together the deficit and the Afghanistan war exemplify the chronic imbalances that unless corrected will accelerate American decline," he writes.

But the US budget deficit now and in the immediate future is not a problem for the United States. And given that the austerity policies on which there is a shameful bipartisan consensus right now, depression is likely to be the main economic problem for years to come. And given the prospective end of the euro, which sadly looks more likely all the time, the dollar will remain the world's reserve currency for some time to come. And that means we will continue to run large trade deficits, which in turn means that federal budget deficits will continue as long as private savings exceed private spending.

The budget deficit will not force an end to triumphalist foreign policies and the excesses of militarism any time soon.

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